We get the scoop from the ice queen as she celebrates ten years in business

It’s been quite the decade for Claire Kelsey of eccentric ice cream enterprise Ginger’s Comfort Emporium. Just over ten years ago, at the end of 2009, she bought an old ice cream van on a whim. It became a DIY project to do with her dad with the idea of selling ‘something’ from it one day. 

Being asked to write a recipe book for them is my proudest moment

Fast forward to 2020 and she is now celebrating ten years in business with a cookbook, multiple daytime TV appearances and even a stint at Manchester airport under her belt. We caught up with her for a chat about the difference a decade makes.

2020 01 30 Gingers Flavours
Some esoteric and labour intensive early flavours

Tell us about that first ice cream van 

CK - “I just went to Brighton and got one. It all happened really quickly. If I’ve got an idea I just have to do it. It wasn’t in the best of conditions - I didn’t look before I leapt - but it’s still going. I knew I’d probably want to sell ice cream from it but I thought I might sell other things like sandwiches and soup. I didn’t know why I was doing it really. It was just a renovation idea, I wanted to do something arty.”

Were you into making ice cream at that point?

CK - “No. I’d worked as a chef and a food stylist but I’d never made ice cream. That came in the spring, learning, developing recipes and having fun with it. I’d take it out into Chorlton and just rock up where the shop didn’t mind me being there. I’d tell my friends and hope people would come down. Passers by were stopping and going "Oh my god what’s that? Is it an ice cream van? Marmalade on toast ice cream?!" People just loved it. Then we got on the markets and the Twitter following and Facebook page grew. It was all just very organic and authentic. Just a slow grower.”

2020 01 30 Gingers Ring Hand Cone
You've got to hand it to her

Did you have any idea you’d still be doing that ten years later?

CK - “Nope. Absolutely not. Obviously I went through a phase where I wanted to become the next Ben & Jerry’s. Everything was going so well: having a book deal, making money from selling the ice cream and all this attention. I was getting articles in all the major papers, I was invited on telly a couple of times a year doing recipes: This Morning, Sunday Brunch. I thought, if I keep doing things right I’ll be able to sell the business for millions of pounds one day. But there was all this pressure on me to not fuck it up. Obviously it didn’t happen but I don’t mind because I enjoy the business. It makes me happy and hopefully my staff enjoy it.”

It must have been stressful with people pulling you in different directions?

CK - "The only way I would have done it is if I’d really pushed the wholesale side of things. But I wasn’t able to - and I wasn’t willing either because it’s no fun. I didn’t want to build a delivery infrastructure or be battling the costs all the time, making an inferior product so that the price was right for the retailer. It’s expensive ice cream. I have to sell it at £7.50 a tub but you can’t really sell it for that much in supermarkets. It just wasn’t the direction I wanted to go in. I still like going to festivals and having fun. I do work with some restaurants but only ones that I like, like Rudy’s and Sugo. I did go through a phase where I was working with a lot of restaurant groups and it was the bane of my life! They dropped off for one reason or another and a lot of the time - to be fair - it was because I wasn’t giving them the best service. I just let it go.”

2020 01 30 Gingers Gingair
Painting 'Gingair'

Any surprises along the way?

CK - “My book was published by Simon & Schuster in 2013. I think being asked to write a recipe book for them is my proudest moment.

“We got quite a few British Street Food Awards in the early years. Between 2011 and 2014 we won Best Dessert every year. In 2012 we got The Best of the Best as well, so we got business development with Marks and Spencer and cool stuff like that. 

“Then there was Manchester airport. The prize for winning Best of the Best was all these business leads. SSP - the kitchen company who run all the food and drink at the airport - put us on in Terminal One for a summer and footed the whole cost. They got this Piaggio Ape from Italy and paid for it to be done up like the original van. I told them I wanted to paint it because I'd painted the original van. It was great to spend time fixing up a van with my dad the first time and then we got to do it again with the Piaggio.

"But I had to jump through so many administration hoops to work with them. I was working from my flat at the time. I didn’t have a proper kitchen so that all had to be made above board. We had to do so much paperwork it was unbelievable. I almost gave up. That’s not what I went into business making ice cream for. But we did it because they were expecting to shift huge quantities of ice cream, and then - they didn’t! They made this initial order for about 50 tubs and that lasted about six months.”

What went wrong?

CK - “Well, we weren’t in charge of who was staffing it because they were essentially running it as a franchise. They didn’t have the best sales people on there. I don’t want to be horrible but we had the least experienced, the youngest -  they weren’t really pushing it. But I think the main reason, is in an airport you want familiarity. You’ve got so many things on your brain: Where are your kids? Where’s your passport? What boarding gate are you going to? You just want an easy choice. It’s like, right, Burger King I know that. Upper Crust, I know that. I know what Ben & Jerry’s is. Artisan ice cream? Limoncello and treacle tart? I’ve no idea what that is. Marmalade on toast? Is that an ice cream or is it a dish? So I went in and we changed it a bit, more standardised flavours at a lower price helped but it still wasn’t brilliant.”

2020 01 30 Gingers With Marco Pw
With MPW

Knowing your target market and your customers is really important.

CK - "Yeah, when you’re doing markets you’re going straight into the heart of where your core customer is. They’re there because they want this kind of experience. Whereas, put yourself in a town centre randomly - which I did a few times - where people don’t know you and you’re just answering the same question over and over. Is this an ice cream van? Yeah, course it’s an ice cream van!”

What’s changed over the years? Marmalade on toast has been there from the start hasn’t it?

CK - “Yes and salted caramel peanut butter (AKA Chorlton Crack). I wasn’t prepared for how popular that would be. It’s crazy. We sell it ten times more than all the other flavours. We’ve lowered the amount of sugar in that a bit, because in summer we could barley scoop it, it was so soft. The more sugar that’s in it the softer it is. So we changed it and it’s still delicious. 

"In the beginning, I was making it all by hand, which put me in a really good position to write the book but not to upscale it. I was using a really tiny domestic churner that does half a litre at a time. I had to go to doing four litres in the big machines and my recipes were just splitting. I was putting my delicious ice cream in it and it was churning it to butter. It was heartbreaking. I was like, oh my god I’ve just spent £4k on this machine and I can’t use it. But I reached out to some heavyweights in the ice cream world. All the really good books I’ve got, I wrote to the authors and some of them were really helpful. It’s a balance between fat, water and milk proteins. I’m not very good at algebra but someone worked it out for me so that I could adapt all the recipes. We’re stuck with those machines now because I think if I upscale and use a bigger machine I’ll have to go through all that again. Rather than get bigger machines, we just get more machines.” 

2020 01 30 Gingers Van Emily Dennison

Have you adapted to changing public tastes? You do a lot of vegan flavours now.

CK - “I try not to pander to health trends because our ethos has always been, if you’re going to have something ‘bad for you’ then have it really good and enjoy it. Enjoy your treat and just moderate it. You don’t have to eat it every day. I’d rather eat a scoop of something amazing than a whole tub of this diet ice cream that doesn’t satisfy me. But the vegan stuff, it’s an ethics thing for me and it always has been. When I got into making ice cream I didn’t realise what sort of industry it was. We get all our cream from Creamline dairies who are great. I know the farms who are all dotted round Cheshire and they’re all good farms. But I still don’t really like propping up an industry based on using animal products. I want to get away from it. That’s why it’s really important to make the vegan ice creams as good as the dairy. Sometimes I go out and 75% of the menu is vegan. The chocolate, the ‘crack’ and the fior de latte that are dairy but they are still the best sellers so it’s a balancing act. Veganism is the one thing that I will concede to because it’s not a food trend. It’s really important that people start eating fewer animal products.”

Any regrets?

CK - “I wish I’d said yes to Market House in Altrincham when they offered it to me. It was good when I was there with the van and I loved Jenny and Nick and what they were doing but I just felt like I’d taken on so much. I was already in Affleck’s Palace, and everything was so overwhelming. I thought, I can’t take this on, it’s too much. But it was a great deal and it’s done so well. Messing up important meetings with London people and things like that. Everyone makes mistakes and you’ve got to move on but I really beat myself up about missed opportunities. It’s all worked out pretty well though. I don’t think I could have ever sold it to Unilever for a million pounds.”

And any advice for people just starting out?

CK - “Never think about the money in the business account as your money because you’re constantly upset at losing it. A lot of businesses go through this - it’s a game of snakes and ladders. When you hit a snake, it hurts. You take it personally, but you can’t. You have to think - you pay yourself and that’s your money but whatever else is in there is not yours. Other people will take it. Especially HMRC! You can’t get upset about it.”

What are you doing to celebrate your tenth birthday?

CK - “I’ve had some scratch cards made up, each one with a prize. Everyone gets a scoop, or a double scoop or 50% off. We’ll be giving them to customers at the parlour and maybe some at the van throughout the year. I just want to say thanks to our customers for their support. Manchester’s such a great place to launch a food business. Not just because people are well up for it and they’re happy to pay for good stuff but also the support network between all the food and drink businesses is awesome. We’ve always got each other’s back and we’ve all grown together.”

2020 01 30 Gingers Tall Menu With Claire

Flavours of the decade

All time best seller - Chorlton Crack - salted caramel peanut butter

Ginger's aficionados favourite - Marmalade on toast - one of the first recipes Claire developed in 2010

Claire's favourite of all time - Extra virgin olive oil & sea salt - melon-y, grassy and peppery. Luxurious texture

Current interesting flavours - Hibiscus & white chocolate / Mandarin & blood orange / Gofio Di Millo, toasted maize - tastes like cornflake milk

Best selling vegan flavour - malted coconut milk